Bristol University Christian Union bars women from speaking roles at meetings

Louise Ashwell – News Editor 5 December 2012

The University of Bristol’s Christian Union (BUCU) has sparked dispute among students and been placed under investigation after ruling that women cannot occupy main speaker roles at its weekly meetings. They also cannot serve as principal speakers at the Christian Union’s away weekends, or during its mission weeks, unless they do so alongside a husband.

The union’s clarification of their position was in response to the Church of England’s General Synod recent vote against a change in legislation allowing women to become bishops. Though the motion only narrowly missed the two-thirds majority required to pass, the role of women in the church relative to men is one that divides the Christian community, and has split the ranks of the Bristol CU.

Members of the Christian Union were informed about the union’s position in an email sent out by President Matt Oliver. In it he states that “it is ok for women to teach in any CU setting…However we understand that this is a difficult issue for some and so decided that women would not teach on their own at our weekly CU meetings, as the main speaker on our Bristol CU weekend away, or as our main speaker for mission weeks. But a husband and wife can teach together in these.” The restrictions have been specified despite a clause in the society’s constitution. The document available on their website states as one of its aims ‘to abide by the Union’s Equal Opportunities and Harassment Policies’, which commits to ensuring ‘no individual will be unjustifiably discriminated against’.

The society was forced to make clear its position on the issue after its International Officer James Howlett stepped down from his post. A reader commenting on the article in the Bristol Tab, which broke the story, has claimed that his demission was actually made in protest that the Union had been considering liberalising its policies to allow women to teach alone in at least some of their meetings. Allowing women to speak in certain settings, which teaching alongside a husband allows, was therefore a compromise measure for the society.

Oliver in his email was keen to stress that the union accepted the move may not be embraced by all members. “We all hold individual convictions on secondary issues such as women speakers, which are often reflected in the churches we choose to attend. It is good and right that we hold strong beliefs on the Bible’s teaching about secondary issues but they are not what we centre around as a CU and therefore are not always reflected in the CU’s practice.” The Christian Union has since released a statement insisting they hold ‘no formal position on the role of men and women in the church’.

BUCU’s decision has attracted angry responses however from some who argue the union’s position violates women’s rights. Co-presidents of Bristol University’s Feminist Society, Shannon Keis and Laura Ho, described the Christian Union’s stance as “hugely discriminatory, deeply offensive and sexist to women”. In a statement, they added “we would hope for women to have equal opportunities to speak at all occasions, whether alone or not. Religious groups should not be immune from question or criticism with regards to gender equality”.

Welfare and Equality Officer for the student’s union (UBU), Alessandra Berti, confirmed that they will be carrying out an investigation into whether the Christian Union’s decision constitutes an act of gender discrimination, stating ‘we would like to assure our members and the general public that UBU and the full-time elected officers are investigating the issue further in consultation with the groups involved. In particular we will be making certain that our equality policy is properly adhered to in all cases.

Louise Ashwell – News Editor